Lockdown Armchair Travel – Portugal – Lisbon 2013 & 2018

More lockdown armchair travel memories, and P (we’re still on P) is also for Portugal, a country we’ve popped into many times on cruises and where we spent an amazing Valentines’ weekend in 1999 in beautiful Porto. But here we’re looking at a couple of trips to the capital Lisbon, in 2013 (to celebrate a friend’s birthday) and 2018 (for Eurovision). So when you think of Portugal, what do you think of? For me, it’s undoubtedly this!

The fish is sensational! And cheap too, unless you accidentally wander into a rip-off restaurant. Always check Trip Advisor in Lisbon before sitting down anywhere! So where shall we begin? Lisbon is a sprawling city, so let’s start right in the centre at the Rossio Square.

with The Queen Maria II National Theatre in full glory

The other great square is Commerce Square, on the edge of the river Tagus

full of restaurants, arcades, shops and tourists

Unsurprisingly there are some stunning churches – this is the cathedral

But baroque churches are everywhere

The castle stands proudly overlooking the city and its green shade is very welcome on a hot day

Plus the views are spectacular!

The other striking sight is the famous Belem Tower

And in the city centre, there is the historical Santa Justa lift

But primarily the beauty of Lisbon is on the streets. Its tiles, its roofs, its complicated corners, its grandiose old shops and its carefree lifestyle.

Farewell Lisbon, hope we see you again sometime soon!




The Agatha Christie Challenge – Ordeal by Innocence (1958)

Ordeal by InnocenceIn which Jacko Argyle is found guilty of the murder of his mother Rachel and dies in prison before Dr Arthur Calgary can come forward and gives him a cast-iron alibi for the time the crime was committed. The other household members aren’t happy to discover that it wasn’t Jacko who killed Rachel – as it means one of them must have. Calgary takes it on himself to discover the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Book of JobWhereas Christie’s previous book, 4.50 from Paddington, unusually contains no dedication, Ordeal by Innocence contains both a dedication and an epigraph. The book is dedicated “to Billy Collins, with affection and gratitude”. That’s none other than William Collins himself, Christie’s publisher since the days of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and whose company would continue to publish her books until her death in 1976 – and indeed beyond (with the unusual exception of The Hound of Death.) The epigraph reads: “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me. I am afraid of all my sorrows. I know that Thou wilt not hold me innocent.” These are two verses taken from the book of Job, chapter 9 verses 20 and 28. The book was first published in the UK in two abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September 1958, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from February to March 1959, under the title The Innocent. An abridged version of the novel was also published in the 21 February 1959 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 3rd November 1958, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1959 under the British title.

sing a song of sixpenceMuch has been made of two facts regarding this book. Firstly, many commentators believe that the plotline owes a lot to Christie’s short story Sing a Song of Sixpence that was published 24 years earlier in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. Personally, whilst there might be some overlap, primarily in the which of us did it? area, I don’t really see the enormous link between the two – in fact, I think there is a greater link – certainly as regards the motive – with the novel Appointment with Death. Secondly, in Christie’s own words, this book, along with Crooked House, “satisfied me best”; after a period of reflection, she placed it as one of her few personal favourites.

Sleepy boredThis is definitely a book that splits her fandom, with many people siding with the contemporary reviews at the time, that it was below par for Christie, and others agreeing with more recent reviews that it’s one of her best. I firmly sit with the earlier viewpoint. I found this book very stodgy, very slow, and very disappointing. And, where those who like the book, criticise its ending for stacking up too much action and artifice, I find the ending (along with, to be fair, the beginning) by far its most readable and enjoyable part. Christie set about this book to be a psychological thriller rather than a murder mystery, and for me it simply doesn’t work. After its initial mysterious opening, it quickly falls into dull characterisations and strained conversations, until the arrival of Mickey. His confrontation with Calgary injects some drama into the events, and you think that it’s all going to pick up from this point – but it doesn’t. Instead, there are endless scenes of reflect and retrospection, reminiscences, and recollections, and absolutely no action. There’s a lengthy sequence, for example, where Leo Argyle drones on through what appears to be a full psychological assessment of his marriage. It’s very introverted and, frankly, not at all interesting, although you do feel it’s probably cathartic for him. But that doesn’t make a gripping read for us.

police inspectorIt’s not a question of the book missing a Poirot or a Marple, as it has the perfectly serviceable Superintendent Huish in charge of operations, but Christie makes Huish take a very back seat. I just spent hours and hours reading the thing waiting for something to happen. And on those rare occasions where something does happen, it’s in isolation and is followed by more conversations and introverted wonderings. I can appreciate that Christie might well have wanted to try her hand at a different kind of narrative, a more thoughtful, perhaps cerebral book. But the outcome is one of sheer tedium* (*with exceptions).

sunnyThe exceptions are the intensely mysterious and unnerving start, where Dr Calgary drums up the courage to visit the ironically named Sunny Point house, with no understanding of where he fits in to the unfolding drama of the household; and the final twenty pages or so which involve another murder, an attempted murder, the surprise unveiling of the murderer and the explanation of how the whole thing came about. But the morass of pages in between is, I’m afraid, hard work. The retrospective nature of the narration acts as a distancing agent, as Christie tries to make us see inside the heads of Leo, Hester, Mickey and so on, but doesn’t really achieve it. As a result, we’re just onlookers, having a story told to us from a distance but without much in the way of personal involvement or attachment.

InnocentThe second murder is, regrettably, telegraphed about 80 pages before it happens. For some reason, as I mentioned earlier, the police play a very back seat with this book so it’s incumbent on Dr Calgary (because his evidence turns the household into uproar) and Philip Durrant (because he is bored and wants some mental exercise) to do the necessary investigating. Durrant is going to go one of two ways; he’s either going to turn out to be the murderer himself, or be murdered for his meddling. You just know it’s going to happen. And it does. There’s an element of fatalism here, that comes across as rather oppressive but also easy for Christie. There’s a point where Calgary is leading all the investigation and it occurs to the reader that we actually know very little about him, and what his motivation is for getting so involved with trying to uncover the truth. To be fair, that’s never really satisfactorily dealt with; we’re told it’s because of Hester’s early statement “it’s not the guilty who matter, it’s the innocent”, but the lack of a structured investigation procedure doesn’t do this book any favours.

ClueOne thing that is very much in the book’s favour is that the reader hasn’t got a tiny clue as to who is guilty until right at the very end. Christie dumps a couple of enormous clues on us fifteen pages before it ends, that, if you stop and check back on a couple of earlier sentences and actions, indicate precisely and unequivocally who is to blame. Even though another suspect is brought into the frame at the last minute, once you’ve read the passage in question, there’s no doubt as to whodunit. And although you’ve been desperate for some action, so this last-minute excitement comes as a very welcome diversion, in a sense it is a shame that the book’s so closely guarded secret is opened up so inelegantly at the end.

MelancholyWith none of Christie’s usual sleuths taking part in this story, it is left to Superintendent Huish to lead the investigations, under the auspices of the Chief Constable, Major Finney. Christie doesn’t give Finney any characteristics at all – which is quite unusual of her – but we do at least get a small insight into the nature of Huish. “Huish was a tall, sad-looking man. His air of melancholy was so profound that no one would have believed that he could be the life and soul of a children’s party, cracking jokes and bringing pennies out of little boys’ ears, much to their delight.” So, a professionally dour man, which belies his true personality. We know he also has a “gentle West Country voice.” But beyond that, there’s very little to go on.

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. Apart from a couple of obvious places, like London and Plymouth, all the locations are West Country creations of Christie but probably based on real places. Redquay, Polgarth, Ipsley; the ferry at Drymouth (maybe real-life Dartmouth?), and the cathedral city of Redmyn (maybe Truro?) The introverted nature of the book means that location as such is not important, the only relevant location is in the mind.

KiplingThere are, however, several other references, quotations and people. Most people will recognise Calgary’s early recalling of “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth” as coming from Shakespeare’s King Lear; in fact, Serpent’s Tooth was one of the possible original ideas for the title of the book. “Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right” says Leo, quoting Kipling – it’s a quote that also appears in A Pocket Full of Rye. In discussing Jacko’s trial, and commenting on his mental stability, Leo affirms “the McNaughten rules are narrow and unsatisfactory”; the McNaughten rule – and I’m quoting Wikipedia here, is “that every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

Lizzie BordenA number of old cases are quoted in this book. For instance, the case of Lizzie Borden, also mentioned in After the Funeral, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. Huish remembers Harmon “in 1938. Long record behind him of pinched bicycles, swindled money, frauds on elderly women, and finally he does one woman in” – I’m fairly sure that’s a fictional character. Charles Bravo, is cited as a plausible murder victim; Mrs Cox and Dr Gully, also mentioned, were involved in the case. Bravo was killed in 1876 by antimony poisoning, but to this date no one has been brought to book for the murder.

We’ve all heard of the Magna Carta, but Hester is able to quote it: “to no man will we refuse justice”; which remains the basis of many extant laws around the world. Tina’s father is said to have been a Lascar seaman – a lascar was an Indian or Asian sailor or militiaman employed on European ships from the 16th to the 20th century. Micky remembers his mother, hiding in the Tube from “moaning minnies”, a slang term for German smoke mortar bombs. Hester is said to have seen an amateur performance of Waiting for Godot at the Drymouth Playhouse – that is, of course, Samuel Beckett’s famous 1953 play.

Macbeth“We shall never know the truth” says Peter, “I feel a kind of pricking in my thumbs”. By the pricking of my thumbs is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but also the name of an Agatha Christie book that the grande dame hadn’t written yet – a Tommy and Tuppence novel that would appear in 1968. When in London, Hester decides to stay at Curtis’ Hotel, as that’s where her mother used to stay – but it’s a figment of Christie’s imagination, I’m afraid. Philip recollects a line of French poetry – “Venus toute entire à sa prole attaché” – Venus entire latched onto her prey – a line from Racine’s play Phèdre. It’s the moment he realises he doesn’t love Mary any more.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money has an important role to play in this book, so it is surprising that it’s mentioned so irregularly. Orphan Mickey is taken into Rachel and Leo’s household for the princely sum of £100 – which at today’s value would be £1,633. No wonder Mickey was upset at the bargain basement deal. Jacko demanded half that sum, £50, from Rachel – that’s £816. And the £2 that Hester borrows from Kirsten, is a surprising £32 today.


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Ordeal by Innocence:


Publication Details: 1958. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated November 1970, with a price of 5/- on the back cover. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a female figure surrounded by blue petals against the clouds across the moon, about to be swallowed up by an enormous snake. None of these symbols seem to have anything whatsoever to do with the story, although Viper’s Point was the original name for Sunny Point.

How many pages until the first death: The first death occurs before the book starts – the best part of two years before. For the second death, you have to wait an additional 170 pages – so if you’re waiting for someone else to die in order for the book to get the kick start it needs, you have to have a lot of patience. That only adds to the sense of boredom.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could see.

Memorable characters: Sadly, the characters are all very one-dimensional. A few of them – Gwenda, Finney, even Hester herself, have very little in the way of personality. Mickey is notable for having a spark of dynamism to him. But the rest do not stay in the mind at all.

Christie the Poison expert:

All the deaths in this book (before and after it starts) are characterised by acts of violence, and poison plays no part in it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As this book is very unlike most of Christie’s other works, unsurprisingly it doesn’t follow many of Christie’s usual themes and issues. The lesson to be learned from the book, if you like, is, as in the words of Lennon and McCartney, that money can’t buy you love. Rachel Argyle collected children with the view to adopting them as she couldn’t have children of her own. And though she showed them love, generosity and support, her relationships with her children were never as good as a those with a true blood relationship.

There’s a conversation in the book between Philip and Hester that goes quite deeply into the subject of suicide, and you feel that today the chapter could almost warrant a trigger warning. Hester confesses that she’s frequently thought of suicide, and Philip loftily discusses how prevalent suicide is in teenagers, citing a number of good reasons why this should be the case. Suicide was still illegal in 1958, and you can tell from the matter-of-fact and critical nature of their conversation that common practice was to look down on and scorn suicide rather than the more compassionate attitude we take today.

There’s a little xenophobia as usual; Mary favours a suggestion that Kirsten is the murderer as “after all, she’s a foreigner”. Tina is twice described as “half-caste”, which simply reflects the language of the day rather than being an indication of racism; however, when Philip starts to consider her as the murderer, he crosses the decency line. “Tina’s always the dark horse, to my mind […] perhaps it’s the half of her that isn’t white.”

Apart from that, there isn’t the variety of conversations with a range of people, or comments on actions that might stimulate class or social observations. Deep down, the book isn’t interesting enough to have them!

Classic denouement:  In a strange way, yes. All the suspects and interested parties are assembled by Calgary, who, guides us all to a slanging match showdown with the guilty party. The most extraordinary thing about this is that it all takes place without sight nor sound of a police officer – not even in the follow-up final chapter.

Happy ending? Yes – probably. Things are definitely looking good for one couple, whilst another might have a chance together. Others, however, are not so lucky.

Did the story ring true? One of its plus points. Yes, you can completely imagine how this story could be true, from the modus operandi to the frantic last efforts of the guilty party to eradicate proof against themselves.

Overall satisfaction rating: It has a good, mysterious start and an exciting, if frantic ending. You don’t find whodunit until the final scraps of pages, and the story does actually hang together quite convincingly. It’s such a shame, then, that the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen. It’s not Christie’s worst, but she’s way off the mark thinking it was one of her best. I’m being generous with a 6/10.

Cat Among the PigeonsThanks for reading my blog of Ordeal by Innocence, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Cat Among the Pigeons, the Christie that I automatically think of when I try to assess which of all her books is my favourite. It’s a welcome return to Hercule Poirot after three years, and – if I remember rightly – the girls school setting gives a great sense of claustrophobia. So I’m really looking forward to attacking this book again. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Some theatre memories, you say? Why not! December 1986 to November 1987

With the return of live theatre looking further and further away let’s immerse ourselves in these memories. A couple of concerts here too, but, as I have the programmes, I might as well include them!

  1. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Royalty Theatre, London, 23rd December 1986

We’re used to seeing Joseph come round every couple of years or so nowadays, but I think back in ’86 a London production was quite a rarity. The Tomorrow People’s Mike Holoway starred as Joseph in this brash and bright little production, which we remember enjoying but in comparison with all the big shows we’d seen throughout the year, it was perhaps slightly underwhelming. I’d like to be able to say more about this production, but I’d be making it up. The Royalty, if you’re wondering, is now the Peacock.

  1. Carmen – English National Opera at the London Coliseum, London, 3rd January 1987

Miss Duncansby’s first exposure to the world of opera. You can’t go wrong with Carmen – wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who described it as the best ever musical? This was a heavily criticised production that the purists loathed, as it brought the famous cigarette girl kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, with a translation by Anthony Burgess. Carmen was sung by Sally Burgess, Don José was John Treleaven, Micaela was Rosamund Illing and Escamillo David Arnold. We really enjoyed it, and were patronised by the pompous asses around us for doing so.

  1. The Maintenance Man – Comedy Theatre, London, 14th February 1987

This was the most self-indulgent Valentine’s Day celebration ever, with Miss D and I going to the Equatorial Restaurant for lunch (a Singaporean place that was a favourite, sadly long gone) and the Paradiso e Inferno on the Strand for dinner (now replaced by a similar Italian restaurant) and fitting in The Maintenance Man (so to speak) for its first house in between. A comedy by Richard Harris, best known for his TV writing, it starred John Alderton, Gwen Taylor and Susan Penhaligon.

Divorced Bob can’t stay away from his ex-wife’s house, much to the annoyance of his new girlfriend. I remember it being very bittersweet (much more bitter than sweet) and without that many laughs. This performance was right at the end of the run. No wonder we remember the meals more that day.

  1. Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket in The Arkley Barnet Show – Comedy Theatre, London, 24th March 1987

Filling the gap left by The Maintenance Man, the “Dear Ladies” launched themselves on the Comedy for a short season with their Arkley Barnet Show, an excuse for some wonderful Hinge and Bracket shenanigans, which if you loved, you loved, and if you hated, you hated. I loved them. Their act managed to mix the historical and the modern in a really clever way. I remember at the time that fear of AIDS was everywhere, and many much-loved performers were sadly losing their lives to it. This prompted Dr Evadne to modernise the old song A little of what you fancy does you good into A little of what you fancy kills you off. Sharp intakes of breath all round, as you can imagine – but devilishly brilliant.

  1. When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout – Whitehall Theatre, London, 2nd April 1987

We saw this with our friends Mike, Lin and Barbara, and I remember we were very late leaving the restaurant beforehand so we had to run to make the curtain up, and thus sat there panting and sweaty for the first half hour, which is never a great start to a show. The play had won Sharman Macdonald the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, and I remember it going down with the audience very well, but not much else.

It’s very much a young woman’s play, involving understanding relationships, disappointing parents and struggling to discover yourself. Maybe it didn’t speak much to me? Not sure. Mrs C can’t remember anything about it either. Fabulous cast though; Sheila Reid, Julie Walters, Geraldine James, John Gordon Sinclair.

  1. The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Savoy Theatre, London, 18th May 1987

Tipping a wink to a touring production of A Chorus Line that we saw in April for my birthday, at the Apollo Theatre Oxford, and starring Caroline O’Connor as Cassie (and with a young Ruthie Henshall as Maggie), our next London show was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to which we also brought the Dowager Mrs C, and she really enjoyed it. A moderate success in New York but a flop over here, Rupert Holmes’ inventive and interactive musical, took Dickens’ unfinished novel and challenged the audience to solve the murder. Notable for the star billing given to comedy legend Ernie Wise as the Chairman, the production also boasted such talents as Lulu as Princess Puffer, Julia Hills as a cross-dressing Edwin Drood, David Burt as John Jasper and Martin Wimbush as my namesake, the Reverend Crisparkle. This should have been a hit, and I’m still not quite sure why it wasn’t, but it only lasted ten weeks.

  1. Kiss Me Kate – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Old Vic, London, June 1987

Another of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite shows, we took her to see this RSC production, which I think was played heavily for laughs with a relatively straightforward production by Adrian Noble. By far the best thing about it was Nichola McAuliffe’s fantastically tempestuous Lilli, almost matched by Paul Jones’ smarmy Fred. Interesting to note that Tim Flavin and Cyril Nri appear in the cast, in relatively minor roles. Thoroughly enjoyable, but there again it would have to be a bad production of Kiss Me Kate that wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable.

  1. Three Men on a Horse – National Theatre Company at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, 3rd October 1987

This highly successful production, directed by Jonathan Lynn, had transferred from the Cottesloe earlier in the year. John Cecil Holm and George Abbott’s comedy premiered in 1935 and concerns a mild-mannered chap who discovers he has a supernatural gift of picking the winning horse, provided he doesn’t watch the race. A fantastic cast was headed by Geoffrey Hutchings, and also included Toyah Willcox, Ken Stott, Desmond Barritt, Cyril Shaps, Alison Fiske and Nicholas le Prevost. Extremely funny and it deserved its success.

  1. The Spinners – Civic Centre, Aylesbury, 6th November 1987

Miss D (as she still was) was very keen to see the Spinners as they had been part of her childhood, being a Liverpudlian who grew up in Australia – the connection couldn’t be stronger. I knew nothing about them, apart from the fact they tended to have late night shows on BBC TV when there wasn’t anything much else to watch. I think you had to be a real fan to enjoy this show – and there were plenty of those in the audience.

  1. Incantation – Civic Centre, Aylesbury, 10th November 1987

We were both huge fans of Incantation, the group that arose from the band that played the music for Ballet Rambert’s Ghost Dances, and who had a number of hits with their Pan Pipes of the Andes style. Incantation took their music very seriously and did much research on the streets of Cuzco to achieve truly authentic performance quality, as their line-up consisted of three Brits and three Chileans at the time. Timeless music, brilliantly performed.

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Poland – Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow, July 2009

Welcome to another trip down memory lane from the days when we used to explore the world (still hoping they come back eventually!) P is for many places including Poland, and a twelve day visit in July 2009, flying into Gdansk for three days, then taking the train to Warsaw for four days, and another train to Krakow for five days, before flying home. A fantastic experience, and one we thoroughly recommend. So what do you think of, when you think of Poland? Maybe this:

TyskieTyskie, like Guinness, tastes so different in its home country. On draught, it’s probably the most refreshing lager-style beer I’ve ever tasted. And if wining and dining is your thing, you probably couldn’t do better than visit Gdansk – especially the wining part, as it’s a true party town. The central area around the River Motlawa is dedicated to having fun – and we loved it.

RiverThose boats are primarily designed to serve you beer, and they do it really well.

party boatAn interesting feature of the downtown river is its medieval port crane, looming majestically out over the water.

Outside the party area, it’s a beautiful smallish city, with attractive buildings and architecture

Gdanskwith beautiful churches like St Bridget’s

St Bridget's Churchand St Mary’s

St Mary'sSt Mary'sGdansk is of course also noted for its shipyard, and as being the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement.

SolidarityIt’s a major tourist sight in its own right

ShipyardWith some very striking civic art

Solidarity was probably the first thread coming loose in dismantling the Iron Curtain, and I love this Polski Fiat making a break for the West

A little out of town is the Westerplatte memorial park, the site of the first battle between Polish and German forces that heralded the start of the Second World War.

Again there are lots of impressive monuments

On the day we were there, they were still looking for unexploded mines!

Moving on to Warsaw. A stately and attractive place, full of wide spaces, elegant architecture and fascinating statues

It’s mixed with plenty of monuments from the modern era too, like the Monument to the 1944 Uprising

and the Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East

Other sights include the President’s Palace

The Lazienki Palace

with its beautiful gardens, remarkably peaceful in the pouring rain, as we experienced that afternoon!

There’s a very attractive Old Town

And now to Krakow, which felt like a much more compact, and picturesque city, reminiscent of a mini-Prague, with a great cafe culture, chocolate-box architecture and a thoroughly relaxed vibe.

St Mary’s Church is stunning

As is, in a different way, the Jagiellonian University

A river boat excursion on the Vistula shows you a few sights from a distance

Krakow is well placed for a few other out of town visits. The Salt mines at Wielicka are out of this world! Extraordinary carvings that take your breath away.

We also took a “Crazy Commie” tour around the suburb of Nowa Huta, in a Trabant; a tour that’s designed to give you an insight into what living here under Communism might have been like, including a typical Nowa Huta apartment:

With inspirational art

And if you were one of the fortunate, important party members, an exclusive restaurant from which to observe how well your Communism is going amongst your peers.

Another sight, close to Krakow, is Auschwitz. It may seem bizarre, or just wrong, for it to be considered a tourist sight. But a visit to Auschwitz is an unforgettable opportunity to bear witness to the horrors of what happened, so relatively few years ago. It’s a sombre place. No one takes selfies. No birds sing. There may be quite a few people there, but all you hear is silence; no one talks until they’re on the way home. I’m attaching a couple of photos, not to be insensitive or sensationalist, but simply to look the atrocity in the face and vow that it must never happen again.

When you return to your comfortable hotel room at the end of the day, you really feel like celebrating life – every minute you have is a victory.

So, to round off, here’s a few of Poland’s quirkier sights.

…and one of the oddest photos of me ever taken!

Thanks for joining me on this little tour of Poland! Hopefully we can all go travelling again soon.



The Agatha Christie Challenge – 4.50 from Paddington (1957)

4.50 From PaddingtonIn which Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Her friend Miss Marple doesn’t think so, and engages the bright young cook and housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do some snooping. With Lucy’s help, and the professional expertise of Detective Inspector Craddock, Miss Marple gets to the bottom of it all eventually! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit – although there are a few plot spoilers I’m afraid!

Agatha ChristieThis is one of Christie’s comparatively rare books that contains no dedication. It was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in October and November 1957, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from October to December 1957, under the title Eyewitness to Death. With that same title, an abridged version of the novel was also published in the 28 December 1957 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in November 1957 under the title What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 4th November 1957 as 4.50 from Paddington, a complete year since the publication of her previous book, Dead Man’s Folly. The UK version was to be titled 4.54 from Paddington until the last minute, when the title and text references were changed to 4.50 from Paddington. This change was not communicated to Dodd Mead until after the book was being printed, so in that edition the text references to the time show 4:54 rather than 4:50.

Margaret RutherfordAs with After the Funeral, this book was the basis for one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films; the first in the series, Murder She Said. Much of the original plotline survived into the film, although Miss Marple plays a much more active part than in the book, as she basically assumes the Lucy Eyelesbarrow role.

Paddington Station4.50 from Paddington is a very enjoyable read, with some excellent aspects to it, plus a couple of downsides. It plunges straight into the main story, with Mrs McGillicuddy witnessing the murder on the third page. No faffing around with endless heavy exposition before getting to the meat, which is always a delight for the reader. Christie writes fluidly, amusingly and with some great quirky descriptions, and also creates a few terrific cameo characters. On the downside, some of the suspects aren’t very well drawn, and personally I kept on mixing up the brothers Cedric, Alfred and Harold so that I couldn’t work out what their particular personality traits are. There’s also a ridiculous coincidence set up, which, whilst thoroughly entertaining (it actually takes your breath away when you read the sentence in question) really takes preposterousness to a new dimension. Nevertheless, you forgive Christie because you’re totally enjoying the reading experience. Christie uses her short chapter structure to its fullest benefit, to build momentum and suspense, and give the impression that she’s keeping you up to date with what’s happening in every area of the story.

top-secretWith only a few pages to go, you realise that so many of the story’s secrets are still to be revealed, so you’re really kept on the edge of your seat towards the end. Primarily, we don’t discover who it was who was murdered on the 4.50 from Paddington until three pages before the end; and that’s unavoidable, because, in order for the crime to make sense, you have to know who the murderer is first. Some critics feel this is a downside, as the reader is unable to stretch their own little grey cells to any meaningful extent. Personally, however, I see it as a strength. It’s amazingly skilful that Christie manages to keep those secrets right to the very end!

Joan HicksonAlthough Miss Marple takes a very back seat in this book, by sending in Lucy to do her work for her, you nevertheless still get the sense that her presence is never too far away. She’s very active in the early stages as she encourages Mrs McGillicuddy not to give up her belief that she has genuinely seen a murder. Miss Marple achieves what she can, considering her age and infirmity, and then hands the real work over to Lucy. However, every time that Miss Marple does play a prominent part in the story, you feel you learn a little more about her. Much of the book’s energy stems from the juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity. Tradition is chiefly seen in the thoughts and characteristics of Miss Marple, and the head of the family at Rutherford Hall, Luther Crackenthorpe. I’ll touch on the modernity aspects later in this blog, but let’s think a little more about the fluffy, pink Jane Marple – a sweet little old lady with the mind of a razor.

GardenerWhen we first meet her, she’s surprisingly antagonistic and difficult. She’s always derived a great deal of joy from her garden, but not at the moment. “The garden is not looking at all as it should […] Doctor Haydock has absolutely forbidden me to do any stooping or kneeling – and really, what can you do if you don’t stoop or kneel? There’s old Edwards, of course, – but so opinionated. And all this jobbing gets them into bad habits, lots of cups of tea and so much pottering – not any real work.” She’s not only frustrated by the fact that she can’t tend the garden herself as she used to, she’s also got her claws into her own gardener – opinionated, full of bad habits, lazy. This is not a contented Miss Marple; she’s annoyed, restricted, and thoroughly critical of others. Miss Marple’s traditional stance is also emphasised at the end of the book when she and Craddock both agree that the perpetrator of the crimes deserves to be hanged. None of this mentally unstable nonsense; an eye for an eye is what’s required here.

Victorian GentlemanShe does continue to be very anti-feminist with her general outlook on woman’s place in society. It’s a respectable place, but not too ambitious. “Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” She’s deferential to “gentlemen”; “”so many gentlemen in the house, coming and going,” mused Miss Marple. When Miss Marple uttered the word “gentlemen” she always gave it its full Victorian flavour – an echo from an era actually before her own time. You were conscious at once of dashing full-blooded (and probably whiskered) males, sometimes wicked, but always gallant.”

PoisonThat paragraph is one of a couple where Christie’s voice comes in and speaks to the reader directly, which is a refreshing narration technique for us to enjoy. I love how, with no prompting, Christie describes Miss Marple’s current maid as “the grim Florence”. More significantly, (and slight spoiler alert!), when Lucy is explaining to Bryan about how the curry might have been poisoned, and tries to convince him that she had nothing to do with it, Christie’s voice comes in again: “Nobody could have tampered with the curry. She had made it – alone in the kitchen, and brought it to table, and the only person who could have tampered with it was one of the five people who sat down to the meal.” And that’s slightly disingenuous of her!

police inspectorSo not only do we get to know a bit more about Miss Marple’s character we also meet Inspector Bacon and Sergeant Weatherall, and get reacquainted with Inspector Craddock. Christie doesn’t spend too much time rounding out the character of Bacon; he’s the local Inspector, “a big solid man – his expression was that of one utterly disgusted with humanity.” Weatherall provides an occasionally comic presence; Christie describes him as “a man who lived in a state of dark suspicion of all and sundry” – which is probably not a bad thing for a police sergeant.

Craddock and MarpleCraddock, however, is a more complicated soul. We met him before when he led the detection in A Murder is Announced. In that book, he revealed the rather unusual characteristics of being able to recognise his own faults and prejudices. He is surprisingly self-aware; scrupulously honest, diligent in his work. In 4.50 from Paddington, he is the Inspector brought in from Scotland Yard. Christie describes him as having “a pleasant manner […] Nobody could make a better show of presenting a very small portion of the truth and implying that it was the whole truth than Inspector Craddock.” He’s delighted to be working with Miss Marple again; and she’s delighted too, and not only because he’s Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, but because she knows he’s a sensible, but also suggestable, detective. She tells Lucy about how they first met; “a case in the country. Near Medenham Spa.” That is indeed A Murder is Announced. He respects her insight, occasionally gently teasing her for having a mind unlike most other fluffy pink old ladies. Craddock’s self-awareness becomes more acute towards the end of the book, when he feels guilty about not having prevented further deaths. “The fact remains that I’ve made the most ghastly mess of things all along the line […] The Chief Constable down here calls in Scotland Yard, and what do they get? They get me making a prize ass of myself!” However, it’s this conversation with Miss Marple that finally gets his brain working in the right direction, so his self-doubt proves to be useful and constructive after all.

BracknellNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. There’s a good mixture of real and make-believe places. Of prime importance in the early stages of the book are the stations through which the 4.50 from Paddington passes. Brackhampton, Milchester, Waverton, Carvil Junction, Roxeter, Chadmouth, Vanequay; other trains stop at Haling Broadway, Barwell Heath and Market Basing. The 5.00 Welsh Express goes to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Well, there’s no doubting the reality of those places. Milchester appears in A Murder is Announced, Market Basing (which one presumes is based on Basingstoke) appears in Crooked House, Dumb Witness and The Secret of Chimneys (amongst others). Brackhampton is presumably Bracknell in disguise.

Cadena CafeOtherwise, locations in London sound highly realistic; Harold has tea at Russell’s in Jermyn Street, (no such tea room, but Russell and Bromley shoe shop is in Jermyn Street), dines at Caterer’s Hall (doesn’t exist), lives at 43 Cardigan Gardens (also doesn’t exist). In Brackhampton, Emma has lunch at the Cadena Café, which was a well-established chain of cafes bought out by Tesco in 1965, shops at Greenford’s and Lyall and Swift’s, (neither of which I can identify) Boots, (obvious) and has tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms (plenty of those around). Martine Crackenthorpe gives her address as 126 Elvers Crescent, N10. N10 is the Muswell Hill area of London, but there’s no Elvers Crescent. The compact that is found is said to have been sold by shops in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris – that’s a pretty exclusive and real address.

A Horses TaleAnd now for the other references. Miss Marple tells Craddock that her method of thought was based on Mark Twain: “the boy who found the horse. He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse and he went there and there was the horse.” I’m pretty sure that’s A Horse’s Tale, published in 1907. Harold drives a Humber Hawk; that was a Hillman style car that was manufactured from 1945 to 1967. Miss Marple raises the question of tontine; the definition of which I lift shamelessly from Wikipedia: “an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It enables subscribers to share the risk of living a long life by combining features of a group annuity with a kind of mortality lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund and thereafter receives a periodical payout. As members die, their payout entitlements devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each continuing payout increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Cowboy filmCedric advises that on the afternoon of December 20th he saw a film, Rowenna of the Range. He describes it as a corker of a western, but I’m afraid it’s fresh out of Christie’s imagination, so don’t IMDB it. I think Mrs Stanwich, the woman who poisoned and killed her own child, whose case Miss Marple recollects, is also fictional. And when Craddock asks Dr Morris about cases where people were poisoned without a doctor realising it, mentioning “the Greenbarrow case, Mrs Reney, Charles Leeds, three people in the Westbury family”, I believe these are all fictional too.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Most unusually, sums of money are not mentioned in this book. There’s the question of the Crackenthorpe inheritance, but no sum is actually cited. The only mention of a sum I noticed was when Mrs McGillicuddy gives a railway porter a shilling as a tip. Today that would be worth 84p. Not overly generous.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for 4.50 from Paddington:

Publication Details: 1957. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixth impression, dated May 1967, with a price of 3/6 on the front cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the sarcophagus in the background, with the compact, some fur from a collar and some foliage, neatly and fairly encapsulating a few vital elements of the plot.

How many pages until the first death: 3. There are few things more rewarding than a whodunit where the crime appears so early in the book. You know there’s no waiting around, no lengthy expositions, just the opportunity to dive straight in and solve it!

Funny lines out of context: Regrettably none that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Although some of the characters aren’t very well drawn, there are plenty that are. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of Christie’s strong young women, full of gumption and derring-do, a trusty pair of hands into which to entrust a lot of the leg work in solving the crime. At first you get a slight sense of disappointment that Lucy is rather artificially parachuted into the story, rather than having any real organic connection to it, but that quickly passes as she gains importance in the first half of the book. The obvious attraction that Cedric and Alfred feel for her is amusingly described, and the very gentle dalliance between her and Bryan is also rather charming.

Elsewhere, Luther Crackenthorpe also stands out because of his irascibility and belligerence, but you can see the heart within the man, and his approaches to Lucy are also amusing. You can never really decide to what extent he’s shamming his ill health or if the Doctors are right and he is needs lots of rest. Mme Joliet features briefly but entertainingly; “a brisk business-like Frenchwoman with a shrewd eye, a small moustache and a good deal of adipose tissue.” And young Alexander’s fresh-faced and exceedingly proper prep school keenness is amusingly and lovingly drawn. It’s not surprising that they made more out of that role for the film Murder She Said.

Christie the Poison expert:

Dr Quimper underplays the possibility that Crackenthorpe may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning, and there are discussions about how you can introduce arsenic gradually into a diet without anyone realising. And there was arsenic in the curry. Aconite is also used in this book – the first time that Christie employs this poison in her novels. Better known as wolf’s bane, this was the poison that was used in ancient Greece, where a javelin or dart would be dipped in the substance to make it even more lethal when piercing skin. Used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and also for its attractive floral appearance, it’s extremely effective as a poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

By far and away the biggest social theme of this book is people’s concerns and suspicions about modern progress, juxtaposed with good old-fashioned practices. Take, for example, the new developments in a 1957 kitchen. When Bryan helps Lucy prepare dinner, he’s impressed by the modern oven. Different ingredients have been merrily cooking away, apparently with no human help. “Have all these things been fizzling away in here while we’ve been at the inquest? Supposing they’d been all burnt up.” “Most improbable,” replies Lucy, “there’s a regulating number on the oven.” “Kind of electric brain, eh what?” admires Bryan, whose exposure to modern cooking methods are limited to putting “a steak under the grill or open a tin of soup. I’ve got one of those little electric whatnots in my flat.”

Miss Marple, perhaps unexpectedly, recognises the benefits of modern domestic progress. She accepts her nephew Raymond describing her as having a mind like a sink, “but, as I always told him, sinks are necessary domestic equipment and actually very hygienic.” Harold’s wife, Lady Alice, is less progressive. “I read in the paper the other day […] of forty people in a hotel going down with food poisoning at the same time. All this refrigeration is dangerous, I think. People keep things too long in them.”

It’s not just kitchen developments that rear their head. Miss Marple and Craddock are both suspicious of the modern tendency towards explaining (or excusing) criminal behaviour from a mental health perspective. Old Doctor Morris, too, when asked by Craddock why Crackenthorpe dislikes his sons, replies “you’ll have to go to one of these new-fashioned psychiatrists to find that out.”

Another major bugbear amongst the characters – especially Luther Crackenthorpe – is high taxation. I’m not sure if this was a hangover from the war, or whether Christie’s own tax bill that year was preposterous, but there’s hardly an opportunity missed to criticise the high levels of taxation at the time. Emma says of her father, “he has a very large income and doesn’t actually spend a quarter of it – or used not to until these days of high income tax.” Dr Morris agrees: “it is the root, too, of his parsimony, I think. I should say that he’s managed to save a considerable sum out of his large income – mostly, of course, before taxation rose to its present giddy heights.” Even Miss Marple stirs his anger on the subject in a conversation also with Cedric; “”punctuality and economy. Those are my watchwords.” “Very necessary, I’m sure,” said Miss Marple, “especially in these times with taxation and everything.” Mr Crackenthorpe snorted. “Taxation! Don’t talk to me of those robbers. A miserable pauper – that’s what I am. And it’s going to get worse, not better. You wait, my boy,” he addressed Cedric, “when you get this place ten to one the Socialists will have it off you and turn it into a Welfare Centre or something.” High taxation is even given as one of the motives for the crime (but I don’t want to give away too much!)

A Christie wouldn’t be a Christie if it didn’t have a little gentle xenophobia, and in this book, it’s reserved for the French. Describing someone or something as French, is taken as a cue to roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and say, “oh, well, the French….” as if that explains everything that’s wrong with the world.

Classic denouement:  No. Even though Miss Marple sets up a revelation of who the murderer is in front of a large crowd of witnesses, it all happens so quickly and suddenly that you couldn’t possibly describe it as classic. You haven’t got the time mentally to prepare yourself for what’s about to happen. Nevertheless, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

Happy ending? Yes. The final discussions between Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock are light-hearted and friendly, and they concentrate on who might engage Lucy in the matrimonial stakes. Craddock doesn’t know who might become Lucy’s significant other, but Miss Marple is certain. Interestingly, in Christie’s original notes, she made it clear that she felt it would be Cedric. But I don’t think that’s how it will work out!

Did the story ring true? As mentioned earlier, there’s one massive coincidence without which a vital piece of evidence would never have been revealed. It’s a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable surprise too, but the reader might think the coincidence is just a step too far. Personally, I forgive Christie for it, and therefore I think that, on the whole, the story just about holds together.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me, the good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are entertaining enough to warrant a 9/10.

Ordeal by InnocenceThanks for reading my blog of 4.50 from Paddington, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Ordeal by Innocence, a mystery novel that includes neither Poirot nor Marple, nor any of Christie’s other long-term detectives. Nothing about this book springs into my mind, so it’s either totally forgettable or my brain has sprung a leak. I guess we’ll find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Happy New Year!

Happy New YearFirst, gentle reader, let me be among the last (probably) to wish you a happy new year – and, my word, we don’t half need one. I hope you’re doing as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances, Covid-dodging on a daily basis, crossing every digit available for your turn for the vaccine to come as soon as possible.


StageIt’s thin pickings for a theatre blogger at the moment; not only because the theatres are all closed, but also because, try as I might, I find it hard to get enthusiastic about live streaming theatre. I know, I know, my bad. I thought I would take to it like a duck to water; instead, I’ve taken to it like Boris Johnson to the truth. It tends to remind me more of what we’re all missing, rather than having something that’s worth it in itself. And I know it’s worth it, and I definitely implore you to keep downloading and streaming, because the industry needs it. Please forgive me if I simply can’t bring myself to do it too.


Agatha ChristieOne difference (for me) from Lockdown 1.0 to Lockdown 3.0 – I feel more fired up about reading. Last March and April I couldn’t have cared less for the written word. Today I feel it ought to play more of a part in my daily rituals. So I shall definitely be continuing with my Agatha Christie and Paul Berna Challenges, and, on a less regular basis, the James Bond Challenge (they’re a lot of work and take a long time to write!) I’ll also try to keep up with my nostalgic theatre memories and my lockdown travel reminiscences. As for going back to the theatre, I feel as though it will be unlikely for me until I’ve had both doses of my vaccine and given them the statutory three weeks to bed in. With current progress, I hope that means I’ll be in time for next Christmas’s pantos!


Paul BernaI knew there was something else I wanted to tell you. There’ll be no Chrisparkle Awards this January. There doesn’t seem a lot of point hiring the costumes and the television cameras etc to celebrate 10 weeks’ worth of live entertainment (not that it isn’t worth celebrating, but I’m sure you get my drift). With any luck the Awards will return this time next year. Or this time in two years’ time. Who knows.


James BondStay safe everyone. Look after your minds as well as your bodies. We can all feel somewhat fragile at the moment – there’s no shame in that. My appreciation for the emergency services and the NHS is off the scale; may all the people who work there safely and successfully keep us all well whilst remaining fit and healthy themselves. We’ll get through it all, I’m sure.